Monday, February 03, 2014

Codfish, frog, alligator, goose, cat, human


I mentioned here the other day the gecko that fell into my paint wash-up bucket. I had no way of knowing how long it had been trapped when I found it clinging to the side of the bucket -– glued, really, with latex -– with only its head out of the gooey water. Alive or dead? It was hard to say.

I lifted it out, peeled away bits of latex, gave it a bath. Alive, but barely so. I wondered if in its thirst it had drunk the water, and its internal organs were as gummed up at its body. And what was it "thinking," as I swished it gently in fresh water? "Ah, my rescuer!" Or was it the fear-and-flight instinct that kicked in. It seemed more like the latter.

The gecko has finely honed instincts for finding food and mates, for avoiding predators, for sensing safe and secure environments. Natural selection has provided it with channels of awareness that are in some ways more acute than mine. But a bucket of latex-infused water was a threat it was not prepared to recognize, and what -– pray-tell – did it make of my fingers and scrubbing?

There's a full-page illustration in Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature showing comparatively-labeled brains of a codfish, frog, alligator, goose, cat, and human. They all possess the same bits and pieces, the same bulbs and bumps. The differences are in the size of the brain and the relative sizes of the parts. In the human brain the most conspicuous development is the massively folding cerebrum. The gecko's brain, I would suppose, is more or less on a par with the frog's.

All these creatures are aware. Even worms, with identical hardwired brains, are aware. As one moves from worm to codfish to gecko to cat to human, the process of brain development becomes more malleable, more dependent upon environmental experiences. At what point does awareness become self-awareness? At what point does an animal acquire an awareness of its own portending mortality? The answers to those questions are not yet clear.

I can still feel the gecko's soft body between my fingers, and enjoy the satisfaction of having saved its life. In that sense, the episode has re-wired my brain. And the gecko? Any lingering memory of salvation? Seems unlikely. Neither anger for my having left out the bucket, nor gratitude for the rescue.